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On Reading “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells

Well's haunting story about a man who travels to the future spawned the term "time machine" and time travel novels as a genre. Though time travel novels are a favorite of mine, I’d not, until last week, read the one that started them all: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. It’s one of the few time travel novels I can recall reading in which the main character travels to the future. Reading it made me realize how fixated I am on time travel to the past. I don’t seem to wonder as much about life in the future. I’m not sure what that says about me and whether I should like it, but there we are.

Wells’ classic, published in 1895, is credited with coining the term “time machine” and spawning the science fiction genre. It begins with a group of men discussing the nature of time and space. A scientist/inventor, known only as The Time Traveller, tells the group that time is a fourth dimension through which humans can move. He demonstrates with a tiny machine he holds in his hand. Before the men’s eyes, the machine vanishes. The Time Traveller claims to have sent it into the future.

At their next gathering, the men hear the story of The Time Traveller, who takes over as narrator. He describes his experiences traveling to the year 802,701, where he encounters two human-ish creatures – the Eloi and the Morlocks – in a desolate landscape of crumbling infrastructure and underground lairs. The Eloi, who live on the surface, are soft, helpless, and harmless. Meanwhile, the Morlocks live underground, ascending at night for sinister purposes.

The story is mesmerizing and haunting and, I’ve read, meant to comment on the Victorian era. I perceive that in the narrative’s skepticism towards the notion of progress, the idea that we move – or can move – steadily forward, gradually perfecting ourselves. As I’ve written before, I’m more inclined to believe cyclically rather than linearly about human progress. Steady forward progress would be ideal, obviously. But I don’t see as much evidence to support the notion historically. The desire for it, though, and the fear that we’re not actuating it persist, which may explain, at least in part, why The Time Machine continues to be read today. I don’t suppose it’s for the Victorian critique, in particular or isolation.

The Time Traveller is repeatedly struck by the Eloi’s incapacities. They’re kindly but hapless. He observes, “It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. […] There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

If we actually achieved the ideals we seek (in the context of the narrative, comfort and ease), the story seems to say, they would destroy us. This reminded me of what Azar Nafisi cautions in Reading Lolita in Tehran: “Be careful with your dreams. One day they may just come true.” 

Later, a character remarks of The Time Traveller, “He, I know – for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made – thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so.”

It’s may not be the most cheering thought. But if hope is to be found, perhaps it’s in committing continually to strive, never to rest in the surety of our ideals, to recognize that even those ideals themselves may only ever be as imperfect as we are.

8 thoughts on “On Reading “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells

  1. There’s a book I read some time ago that I was just trying to remember, you may enjoy it! It’s also about time travel to the future and actually takes this book as fact, so the main character finds a time machine that H.G. Wells supposedly made. I think it’s also part-critique on current human affairs, though of course critical of much more recent times than Wells’ book.
    Now the bad news: Unfortunately, I can’t remember the title!! I’ll definitely get back to you if I do remember it!

      1. I just looked that up and that’s not the one, though it does sound interesting. Wells wasn’t really a character in the one I’m thinking of. As much as I can describe without giving spoilers, it follows one man who sometimes sends correspondence to his friend and ex-girlfriend, and I think he finds the time machine at a party.

  2. For some reason, I’ve never wanted to read this book, and yet, like you (although not quite as strongly), I’m fascinated by time travel and enjoy time travel books. Maybe the lack of fascination for me is that, also like you, I’m MUCH more interested in traveling to the past, than the future. Thanks for giving me that to think about. And thanks also for a very intelligent summary of the book – this way, even though I haven’t read it, I’ll at least know a bit more about what’s going on if someone references it!

    Also, it’s funny – the idea of the Eloi being all soft and useless made me think about the way humans evolve in “Wall-E”, which cracked me up when I saw that movie (because I feel like it was pretty accurate). I wonder if the movie’s writers were influenced by that aspect of “The Time Traveler”?

    1. That’s a great question about Wall-E! I haven’t seen it, but now you have me curious too. I love exploring how literature weaves its way into how we think and conceptualize, becoming a language we build on. Thank you for giving me something to think about, as always! 🙂

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